‘Big Frank’ Verdier helped lay out the Malahat, conclusion

On Wednesday I introduced you to Francis Edward Verdier (1865-1947), who, granddaughter Edna Slater believed, has been given short shrift by historians, me included.

Even if you set aside his key role in the creation of the Malahat Highway he’s a remarkable pioneer. A career logger (when not working on his 180 acres and building his stone and timber home at Brentwood), he’d been there at the very start of Vancouver, helping to clear the massive forests before a metropolis was even contemplated.

It was Mill Bay’s Maj. J.F.L. MacFarlane, Irish, cantankerous and retired from the Royal Artillery, who started the ball rolling by seeking a direct route over the Malahat instead of the existing round-about route through Sooke that dated back to the Leech River gold rush days. It was little better than a goat-track in winter, with cavernous ruts and washouts that made travel an ordeal.

This didn’t sit well with the major on his 100 acres at Mill Bay. He began pestering officialdom in Victoria. And at pestering and persistence he was

an expert, his feisty nature more than once getting him in trouble with his neighbours and the law.

"He talked to anyone who would listen, and on his occasional trips to Victoria," Cecil Clark wrote 70 years ago, "he would argue and wrangle around

offices in the Parliament Buildings. But no one seemed interested." Undaunted, and armed with a map, an aneroid and a compass, he set out one morning to blaze a route over the Hump, marking his progress with pegs.

All to the scorn of his neighbours and those in Victoria who heard of his project.

It took him three years to work his way to Goldstream, when, map in hand, he strode into the office of the Minister of Lands and Forests, who, upon MacFarlane’s admission that he wasn’t a surveyor, dismissed him out of hand.

MacFarlane acquired the unanimous support of the local farmers’ institute (all four members) and returned to Victoria, resolution in hand, to the president of the Victoria Board of Trade who was sympathetic enough to suggest that he seek the public’s support. Legend has it that he set out to acquire

the signature of "every adult between Oak Bay and Mill Bay". Nine months later, he had a petition nine and a-half feet long. But this is supposed to be about Frank Verdier. When the politicians began to show interest, the bureaucrats again insisted upon a professional survey. Which is where the renowned logger and woodsman Big Frank Verdier enters the picture. He was asked to verify MacFarlane’s route, which he did. But he wasn’t a surveyor, either. So the government dispatched a professional named Harris to check things out. He, of course, confirmed that MacFarlane and Verdier were right.

Upon completion in 1911, the original twisting, climbing "highway" over the Malahat wasn’t much better than the original wagon road through Sooke. But it sure was shorter and quicker for which we can thank MacFarlane and Verdier. For the record, the Victoria Motor Club didn’t overlook Verdier’s contribution; it was they who (when most people yet travelled by horse and wagon) hired him to check MacFarlane’s string of pegs, and they who convinced the government that the 14-mile road could be built for $15,000.

As it happened, the road ended up being 17.5 miles long and costing more than $300,000, but it

was done.

For Frank’s 80th birthday, five Verdier generations crowded the fine home he’d built with his own hands of wood and stone. The stories they told of his colourful career included his contribution to the Malahat Highway and how it had taken him and a dozen teams of oxen three hard years to clear his land. Somehow, he’d even found time to serve on Saanich council for a term.

At 80 he was still tall, still broad-shouldered and strapping, still active. Thank you, Edna Slater, for encouraging me to honour him.

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